It Started with a Facebook Post...
It started with a Facebook post.
Towards the end of December, I was reading a silly little Christmas rom-com* and was struck by the frustrating and mildly verbally abusive relationship that was developing between the male and female protagonists. As their inevitable romance was blooming, he would often make "teasing" and "flirting" comments which amounted to all manner of critcisms that basically come back to the man telling the woman she doesn't measure up (i.e. "you're such a handfull" or "you talk too much," etc.). These were always said with a wink and a smile which the reader is supposed to interpret as a back-handed compliment. I became frustrated and took to social media to rant my frustrations:
"When I read a book with a relationship that is vaguely misogynistic and the male is emotionally closed off or mildly abusive and the woman blithely carries on thinking she's got the catch of a lifetime, it makes me sad about societal gender norms. When said relationship is written by a female author, it's hits me powerfully just how ingrained these mentalities are that we think this is "how the story should go." And when I hear anyone praise the likes of 'Jane Eyre' or 'Twilight'...I despair."
This spurned conversation. Which mostly amounted to a friend of mine [correctly] pointing out that Jane Eyre has no place in that statement when accounting for historical and cultural context. This then led to more conversation about feminist prose and the depiction of women in modern literature and ended with this comment from the aforementioned friend:
"I think what is astounding is that Mills and Boon/Harlequin still make and sell ridiculous amounts of romance novels that continue to push this ideal of 'strong man' taking 'feeble woman' and sweeping her off her feet and 'saving her'. In the UK alone, they have over 3 million REGULAR readers (and I think a regular reader means they read 100 books a year). WTF? And you can bet that they are mostly women. When women stop buying and creating the market, then the writers will stop writing them. So in 2016, Ashley, I task you with making women across the world realize that there are much better books to be reading!"
I read a lot. I have opinions, always. And I am a self-identified feminist. I don't like Jane Eyre, I don't like where it's held on the pedestal of feminist literature, and it's best to get that out in the open from the beginning. But I do think it's still a better book than much of what's on bookshelves today and Jane is a better character than many women being written today.
In literature, and more criminally in television and movies, we see comparitively fewer female characters (as opposed to the plethora of male options) which leads to a strange phenom where we eagerly grasp onto whatever representation we do get, even though these women sometimes are so incapable of taking charge of their own life, it's hard to imagine them as the protagonist of their own story. I firmly believe this is how Bella Swan gained her popularity. But what if we just look for and demand better stories?
This blog is not meant to be a "365 days of feminist literature" or "I'm only reading female authors for a year." The plan is to continue reading as I do - which includes all genres, fiction and non-fiction and by authors of all genders, races, and ages - and to share with the webiverse when I come across a book that features interesting, able, confident, strong, intelligent, likeable, fascinating, normal, impressive, flawed, unique, complex women . I hope you follow along. I hope you open at least one recommendation from me this year. I hope I can help you find the better characters.
This is the book collection of Thomas Jefferson, which I saw on display at the Library of Congress last January. Jefferson was an incredible book-collector and actually nearly made himself bankrupt in acquiring his library (along with other delights of fine-living). By 1814 when the British burned the nation's Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. Thanks TJ!
*The Christmas rom-com was Dashing Through the Snow by Debbie Macomber...which a quick internet search reveals was recently made into a Hallmark Christmas movie. The book definitely filled the requirements of the pre-Christmas light-hearted fluff I was looking for, but I'd give it a 4/10. The central relationship is (as mentioned above) problematic and while fully understanding the traits of the genre, the plot ventures into the realm of the ridiculous more often than not. My opinion: skip it.